Senegal’s national sport, even more popular than football, is wrestling. There is Senegalese wrestling on TV nearly every night of the week, and that is only from the stadia around the country; there are countless smaller arenas and village squares where young men wrestle each other to the ground.
I’ve watched it on TV many times and determined that I had to see it in real life. The actual wrestling bout (a mixture of wrestling, judo, and - at the higher levels where they progress to ‘wrestling with boxing’ - also the odd punch) usually takes just a few minutes but the preparation takes an hour or more with the participants strutting about in little loin cloths with various bits of leather and rope entwined about themselves to hold their gris gris – leather pouches containing protective amulets. Traditionally these would be bits of ground up animal or vegetable matter invested with various powers, but those rejecting animism for Islam might now replace the chicken bone with a Moslem prayer (perhaps coated in ground-up chicken bone just in case…). Their spiritual guide will also have prepared various liquid potions for them, which they bring in plastic bottles to drink, pour all over their bodies or sprinkle over the arena before the fight.
All the time there will be relentless drumming (from an official troupe but also by people in the crowd), and a praise singer calling out the virtues of the fighters. Meanwhile the TV cameramen prowl around, and journalists from various newspapers trail the wrestlers with their cameras and microphones – and really the whole thing seems like that characteristically African organised chaos that I love so much about this place.
Finally this weekend I got to go to a real live wrestling contest in a stadium in the middle of Dakar (sat between the treasurer of the national wrestling federation and the father of the favourite to win the cup so inevitably I was also featured several times on the TV, as I discovered at work the next day…). It was everything I had seen on TV only louder and more confusing, with the ‘sand pit’ in the middle where the fight takes place, a group of drummers and singers up one end, two TV commentators talking away constantly (how I wish I understood the Wolof language), journalists milling about everywhere, the various wrestlers (for the four different fights) preparing themselves and of course the crowd getting worked up. This appears to show some sort of blood-letting as part of the preparations:
I enjoyed it so much that my hosts took me on with them to a second competition, not in a stadium this time but a local arena in a suburb of Dakar. Here there was the same drumming and praise singing, but some thirty plus wrestlers strutting about, whilst two or three wrestling bouts were usually taking place, each with its own referee, in various parts of the sand pit. All this built up to a grand finale for which the winner not only got $2,000 but also the opportunity to move up to the ‘wrestling with boxing’ in a proper stadium with bigger prize money.
A spectator at this second venue explained to me that there are four requirements for a successful fighter: physical power, intelligence, serenity and effective mystical charms (the gris gris and potions). I asked whether the charms weren’t just a show to psyche out the opposition, and was assured that they were real, that they work, and that without them a fighter has no chance – indeed without them to counter the power of his opponent’s charms he may find himself powerless to even move once the fight starts. & I must say in the sultry heat of the rainy season, with the hypnotic drumming going on and on, and semi-naked wrestlers pouring these strange-coloured liquids over themselves, it was almost possible to believe in them.
Certainly when I thought about the headlining fight at the first venue, it was hard to comprehend how the fat guy (below) beat his opponent (with the usual impressive fighter physique) without some kind of supernatural help.